More than one theologian has worried that in the modern world faith all too easily floats in the air. Our beliefs about God and salvation and our involvement in specifically religious practices such as prayer meetings and worship services tend to come unhooked from the forces that really shape our day to day lives. Faith becomes like a kind of hot air balloon: decorative, associated with peace and transcendence, perhaps even majestic and inspiring, but not something we would use to get to the office or bring home the groceries.
The Practicing Faith Survey seeks to resist this tendency by not reducing faith to correct beliefs or to involvement only in church-related activities. It places the focus instead on the ways in which faith is worked out in practices, joining belief and behavior. If Christian practices are not just prayers and meetings, what do we mean when we refer to them?
First, let’s dwell for a moment on the word “practices,” because we mean something more by this than behaviors. Culturally, we tend to think of practice as the opposite of theory, so that we first get the ideas straight and then put them “into practice”. Yet a substantial body of work in philosophy and practical theology pushes back on this picture.
Practices not only embody belief; they also shape belief. Imagine that you have two strange Christian friends. One loves debating theological views connected to the Lord’s Supper. She is always up for a detailed debate about the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine and how often the eucharist should be celebrated. However, she never actually attends communion services. It’s all about ideas.
The other friend’s favorite snack is a little bread and wine. He works from home, and several times a day gets up for a little wine and a crusty slice of bread. However, he has little interest in the story of Christ crucified or in being part of the congregation that confesses it. It’s all about behaviors.
Neither of these curious friends is engaged in practicing the Eucharist. That practice is not just about believing, and it is not just about drinking. It brings together beliefs, behaviors, and belonging. Christian practices are like this. They are not just getting the behaviors right nor assenting to the right beliefs. They are ways in which our lives become patterned by faith, and they are important avenues of growth in faith. We grow in faith not just by understanding the Bible’s teachings about generosity or prayer, but by giving and praying with others in ways informed by our Christian commitments.
Now let’s connect this back to school. Students at a Christian school might be involved in prayer times or worship experiences, and they might come to learn about key Christian doctrines, but their faith will also be worked out in other ways.
One small, simple example comes from a student with whom we spoke. She described how she had become aware, in part through themes in her devotions, that she could be doing much better at being able to listen well to others. She realized that that this included listening well to her teachers and to fellow students in class. Wanting to grow in this, she decided to change where she tended to sit in class. Given the choice, she tended to sit at the back, and she realized that this was not helping her to listen well, so she moved to the front to see if she could get better at listening well.
Is sitting at the front of class a Christian practice? Not necessarily. Viewed as a behavior, it could be motivated by the desire to look good or impress the teacher. And it might not be a change that another student in the class needs to make. But combined with the intention to respond to what she was learning from Scripture and the desire to grow in her faith, it became for this student a simple, undramatic Christian practice, a way of joining belief and behavior in her life as a student.
This is the kind of thing that we have in mind when we focus on Christian practices. Christian practices include Bible study and worship, but they also touch other areas of our lives. The Practicing Faith Survey seeks to help students and schools to reflect on how their faith is being worked out in their practices, and to looks for avenues of growth. You can learn more about the range of practices that it addresses here.